No Comment — May 21, 2010, 12:58 pm

New U.K. Government Opens Formal Torture Inquiry

How does a newly elected government concerned about civil liberties and the accountability of its predecessor react to credible claims that intelligence operatives were involved in the torture of prisoners? Britain’s new foreign secretary, Conservative William Hague, shows the way. The Guardian:

A judge will investigate claims that British intelligence agencies were complicit in the torture of terror suspects, William Hague, the foreign secretary, said tonight. The move was welcomed by civil liberties campaigners and may put pressure on the Labour leadership candidate and former foreign secretary David Miliband, who was accused by Hague, while in opposition, of having something to hide. Miliband has repeatedly rejected the accusation and broadly indicated that he or his officials may have been misled by foreign intelligence agencies about the degree of British complicity.

Hague’s remarks appear to have caught the Foreign Office by surprise, as no details were yet available on how the inquiry will be conducted, its terms of reference or when it will start work. Hague will come under pressure to ensure the inquiry is public and comprehensive. He first called last year for an independent judicial inquiry into claims that British officials had colluded in the torture of Binyam Mohamed, the former Guantánamo detainee and a UK resident. Mohamed claimed that he was tortured by US forces in Pakistan and Morocco, and that MI5 fed the CIA questions that were used by US forces.

The usual issues will surround the inquiry. Will immunity be offered for testimony? Will the proceedings be open to the public? What judge will be tapped to handle it?

Notwithstanding the Guardian’s suggestion of surprise, this development was widely anticipated. Hague, while serving as shadow secretary, sharply criticized Miliband over his management of the torture issue. In a recent ruling, some of Britain’s most senior judges suggested strongly that they were also highly dissatisfied with the government’s statements on the subject, which they characterized as misleading. It’s clear that the Labour government was engaged in the same sort of dissembling about torture that marked the Bush Administration, using wiggle words with secret meanings. If the truth is now to emerge, it serves the public interest in Britain, just as it would serve the U.S. public interest, for it to emerge from a detached and depoliticized process–so the formal judicial inquiry is the appropriate tool, just as a commission of inquiry would be for the United States.

The new coalition Conservative-Liberal government in Britain is slowly revealing its hand. A number of commentators have wondered how these two parties could mount a consensus program, given that they seem to represent the extremes of the parliamentary spectrum. However, British parliamentary history points to some significant common ground–especially in the Old Whig tradition of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries. The Old Whigs put a premium on personal freedom and endorsed a moderate, steady reform agenda. Their greatest spokesman, Edmund Burke, emerged as a hero to later generations of Conservatives (many of whom are shocked to learn that he was actually not just a Whig but at times a sharp critic of the Conservatives). As Andrew Sullivan has recently argued, the emerging program of the Cameron-Clegg government in fact highlights a revival of civil liberties. It should therefore come as no surprise that the government now moves decisively to do what its Labour predecessor sharply resisted: a comprehensive formal investigation of torture allegations. At this point, no issue is more fundamental to the civil liberties agenda. The Obama Administration should watch and learn a bit about how a modern democracy approaches the question of accountability for torture.

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